How Did We Get The Bible?


Urban Legends examines widely held myths from a Biblical perspective.

The highest selling book of all time is the Bible. Sold 5 billion copies already and selling at the rate of 100 million a year. This minus digital downloads. “Bible” literally means “the books.” The word comes from Koine Greek, Biblia. The Bible is not one book. It’s made up of 66 books by 40 authors. In AD 367, Athanasius bishop of Alexandria provided a first complete listing of the 66 books regarded as canon. Canon just means a book is considered inspired by God. The word is derived from Hebrew and Greek denoting reed or cane; hence something straight, a rule and standard by which to judge doctrine. In 393 AD, the Synod of Hippo affirmed our current New Testament list and in AD 397, the Council of Carthage published the list of 66 books. Thus it took almost 400 years after the death of Jesus to agree on the content of the Bible. But given that many books were considered and rejected, how do we know the present compilation is right? How exactly did we get here?

The early Christians had only the Hebrew Bible to go by. The Hebrew Bible was already settled before the time of Jesus. He referred to it in Luke 24:44 when he spoke of the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. Nehemiah the last written book of the Old Testament was authored 424-400 BC. By 250 BC, the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek. Known as the Septuagint, it’s sometimes referred to as LXX (Roman numeral for 70) because it is believed 70 (or 72) translators worked on it.

Now, as the need arose the apostles wrote letters to the churches. These letters were read out during services and shared with other churches. But there were hundreds of documents flying around, all purporting to be accurate teaching of Christianity. Things soon got worse. About 140 AD, a gentleman named Marcion, a wealthy ship owner began to teach Docetist heresy. Docetism is a doctrine of Gnosticism. Gnostics claim Jesus only seemed human, that his human form was an illusion – his body wasn’t real. But if the body of Jesus was illusory he couldn’t have been crucified bodily, which forecloses salvation. The denial of the bodily crucifixion of Christ is Gnostic heresy and it was this heresy Apostle John was refuting in 1 John 4:2-3: “For there are many false prophets in the world. This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist.” (1 John 4:2-3 NLT) In other words, rejection of bodily crucifixion of Jesus is antichrist spirit. Marcion rejected the theology of the Old Testament claiming the God of the Old Testament was not a true God and was in fact evil. Then he published his own canon. It largely consisted of a truncated version of the Gospel of Luke plus edited versions of ten of Paul’s letters. This provoked outrage in the church but he was the first to introduce a canon list. He was excommunicated in 144 AD but he highlighted the need for a credible canon list.

The rejection of the bodily crucifixion of Jesus is the antichrist spirit. Click To Tweet

While the Church was still grappling with this assignment, another provocateur appeared on the scene. His name was Montanus. He founded Montanism, a prophetic sectarian movement claiming new revelation. Before his conversion to Christianity Montanus was a priest of the Oriental ecstatic cult of Cybele, the mother goddess of fertility. Montanus became leader of a group of illuminati (“the enlightened”), along with two prophetesses – Priscilla and Maximilla. Members of this group exhibited frenzied seizures and strange utterances. According to the sect, the “age of Jesus” was being superseded by the “age of the Holy Spirit” and Montanus was his spokesman. The Montanus controversy raised the question of whether a new revelation could contradict or even supersede what was taught by Jesus and the apostles. The Church had to come up with guidelines for New Testament canon. Four were produced:

  1. Was the author an apostle or had close connection with an apostle? This goes to eyewitness authenticity and historical accuracy.
  2. Is the book generally accepted by the church at large? This goes to credibility and authority.
  3. Is the book consistent with other books in presentation of doctrine and orthodox teaching? This goes to textual harmony.
  4. Is there evidence of moral and spiritual values that reflect the work of the Spirit? This goes to inspiration.

This is why each of the books of the New Testament is either written by an apostle or someone close to an apostle. The apostles are key. (Ephesians 2:20) Their authority, endorsement, or association with an author confers authenticity. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul placed the Gospel of Luke at par with the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). He quoted Deuteronomy 25:4 in the same breath as Luke 10:7. In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter elevated the letters of Paul to the status of scripture by comparing them with “the rest of scriptures.” The gospels and epistles were already seen as scriptures at the time of the apostles.

As per general acceptability, some of the books were already being circulated among the churches at the time of the apostles. Paul wrote the Colossians, “After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote them.” (Colossians 4:16) And in 1 Thessalonians 5:27, he commanded his letter be read “to all the brothers and sisters.”

Authority figures in the early church not too far removed form the apostles, also endorsed the books that became canon. Ignatius of Antioch, an Apostolic Father and student of Apostle John acknowledged 7 books of the New Testament. Polycarp, a second century bishop of Smyrna and disciple of John also acknowledged 15 books. Irenaeus, bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul whose writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology mentioned 21 books. Hippolytus of Rome who was the most important 3rd century theologian recognized 22 books. These were not people without conviction. They staked their lives on those books. Justin Martyr was martyred. Polycarp was bound to be burned at the stake and when the fire refused to touch him they stabbed him to death. He was 86.

By the way the division of the Bible into chapters did not come until 13th century AD. That was the work of Stephen Langton, a former professor at the University of Paris who became archbishop of Canterbury. But breaking the chapters into verses was the work of Robert Estienne, a 16th century French classical scholar who converted from Catholic to Protestant.

The way the division of the Bible into chapters did not come until 13th century AD. Click To Tweet

But how about the books that were rejected? Why were they rejected? They are collectively known as the Apocrypha. There’s Old Testament Apocrypha and New Testament Apocrypha. “Apocrypha” is from the Greek apokryphos meaning “obscure.” Old Testament Apocrypha are 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, Prayer of Manasseh, Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, Susannah, and Bel and the Dragons), the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, 1 and 2 Maccabees. The Russian Orthodox Church has additional titles, though the Catholic Church listed 1 and 2 Esdras and The Prayer of Manasseh in an appendix without implying canonicity. Several of these writings are tied to Old Testament books. 1 Esdras is primarily a retelling of material found in 2 Chronicles 35:1-36:23, Ezra and Nehemiah 7:6-8, 12. The Esther materials are secondary additions at strategic points. They include prayers by Esther and Mordecai. Baruch is associated with Jeremiah’s secretary. And so at best they’re of historical value but do not rise to the level of canonicity.

But the problems associated with these books are largely doctrinal. Many are doctrinally inconsistent with the rest of the books of the Bible. Tobit for example talks about fish smoke being used to drive away demons. (Tobit 6:5-7) This is contrary to Luke 10:17 where the disciples reported using the authority of the name of Jesus to cast out demons. Tobit also teaches that alms giving can purge away sins. (Tobit 12:9) Yet Hebrews 9:14 says only the blood of Jesus can purge away sin. 2 Maccabees 12:43 talks about making offerings for the sins of the dead. This is the controversial doctrine of purgatory – an evidently wrong interpretation of scriptures (cf. Illuminare: Is there purgatory?

Then there are historical inaccuracies as well as contradictions with other books of the Bible. Book of Judith incorrectly lists Nebuchadnezzar King of Assyrians rather than Babylonians. (Judith 1:5) Attempts to explain this away are rather convoluted.  Then there are texts that create a challenge of inspiration. Maccabees contains editorial notes for instance. (2 Maccabees 2:24-32) That is very strange for an inspired book and it’s unprecedented.

There’s also the absence of testamentary cross-referencing. There are 263 quotations and 370 allusions to the Old Testament in the New Testament. Not one refers to the Old Testament Apocrypha. In essence these books are doctrinal orphans. And the Jews rejected them.

There are other written works that are not included in canon. These belong to a category called Pseudepigrapha. They’re pseudonymously attributed to major figures in both the Old and New Testaments. They were not written by the people whose names they bear. Many like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas were composed by heretical groups like the Gnostics. They purport to give “secret” teachings of Jesus. Some like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas seek to fill in information gaps. That strange gospel claims to reveal what happened to Jesus between ages five and twelve. He’s supposed to have turned clay into twelve sparrows despite the fact the Bible says the first miracle of Jesus was at Cana of Galilee. (John 2:11)

And that’s how the Bible came about.

If you will like to give your life to Christ, please pray this prayer: Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus Christ died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen

© #Illuminare Leke Alder |